The Upper Missouri River and Packet Boats

Wooden packet boats (a packet boat is generally described as a steam boat for conveying cargo, mail, and passengers on a regular schedule) were the primary means of transit on the Missouri River in 1868. Some of the “keel boats” from earlier years still navigated the river, as well as mackinaw boats, canoes, barges, etc., but most commercial traffic of the traders was done on packet boats. Almost all were run by wood burning steam engines. Some were “side wheelers” and others were “stern wheelers.”

Keelboat, 'Camp of the Gros Ventres on the Prairies,' Karl Bodmer, c.1832-1834
Keelboat, ‘Camp of the Gros Ventres on the Prairies,’ Karl Bodmer, c.1832-1834

By the time Fort Union and Fort Buford were the site of the D&P trading post, two of the steamships making the trip up the Missouri were steamer Benton, and steamer Big Horn. The Benton carried 250 tons of goods in 1868, much of which was furs and pelts from the D&P operation at Ft. Buford. The Benton (which was briefly called Intrepid) was a sternwheeler wooden packet boat. The Benton was launched in 1864, and was snagged and lost in 1869. Most of its life, the Benton was run by Durfee & Peck. On one trip up the Missouri in 1865, the entire pilot house of the ship was sheathed in boiler plate iron, to protect the pilots from Sioux Indian attacks.

1829 – Fort Union, Dakota Territory

Old Fort Union, D.T. and Fort Buford, D.T. were located just west of the present day town of Williston, North Dakota, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border. Fort Union was much smaller than Fort Laramie in size. Also, keep in mind, that Fort Union was conceived, built and operated as a totally civilian enterprise, not hampered by, nor aided by federal government rules and military regulations. Ft. Union was built in the autumn of 1829 by the Upper Missouri Outfit (UMO), branch of the American Fur Company (AFC).

Many famous people passed through Ft. Union, including John James Audubon, famous wildlife artist George Catlin in 1832, naturalist German Prince Maximillian, Sioux chief Sitting Bull, mountain men Jim Bridger and Jim Beckwourth.

Fort Union was known as Fort Floyd until about 1830. The physical location is about 100 yards east of the Montana border.

The Physical Appearance of Fort Union, D.T.

Since we do not have color photographs of Fort Union, here we will attempt to describe the fort’s appearance when it was at it’s finest (perhaps in the mid1850’s). No description of the fort will be entirely accurate, for the fort first built in 1829, rebuilt in 1832, and was being constantly remodeled. Fort Union was built on an elevated meadow on the Missouri River’s north bank, about 60 feet from the waters edge. This spot was suggested to the Upper Missouri Outfit, by the Assiniboine Indians. The site was a good one; it was safely above the high water mark of the river. Coulees on the east and west side of the site provided drainage from heavy rains.

Fort Union, Dakota Territory - 1863
Fort Union, Dakota Territory – 1863

French speaking creoles of Missouri (upper Louisiana) mixed with labor and know-how of the French- Canadians, gave the fort have a French colonial appearance.

The plan of the fort was almost square, measuring 245 feet on the north south walls, and 237 feet on the east west walls. The palisade was built in what the Frenchmen called “poteaux-en-terre” or post in the ground. Long trenches several feet deep were dug and large square hewn cottonwood timbers were set on sandstone rocks in the bottom of the trench. Then heavy stones were set around the base of each timber and earth tamped on top of that. The palisade timbers projected 20 feet above the ground. Cross bracing timbers were added on the interior face, after high winds flattened portions of the palisade only one month after completion.

Two story whitewashed stone bastions, or blockhouses, were at the northeast and southwest corners of the fort. Each of these stone bastions had stone walls nearly three feet thick, and thirty foot high, with railed balconies, and sloped shingled roofs painted bright “Turkey red”, topped by large American flags. These white and red bastions were visible for miles around the fort. A barracks building for employees was located on the west palisade, and measured 119 feet by 21 feet. It was divided into six apartments for employees. Additional small structures housed hunters, clerks and engagés (contract laborers).

A twenty-one foot by twenty-four foot ice house was west of the bourgeois house, which had a wooden floor and trap door leading down to a basement where the ice was put away each winter.

A stonemason was hired and brought in from St. Louis to construct the required gunpowder magazine. The 25 foot by 18 foot stone powder magazine was constructed of vaulted limestone four feet thick at its base. A wooden shingle roof was built to top the stone vault’s ceiling, to deter water damage. In addition the double doors of the magazine were lined with tin. A few of the buildings inside and outside the palisade were constructed of adobe. The stone structures remained after the rest of the fort was deconstructed in 1867, with a bit of adobe.

Entry to the fort was from two pair of huge twelve feet wide by fourteen feet high double gates on the south side which faced the river.

The Reception Room & Indian Trading Room

While reading the following description, be mindful that the Durfee & Peck trading post was not within the palisade, but outside the fort walls. This interior trading post was used by the Upper Missouri Outfit (UMO) and later the North West Fur Company (NWFC).

Just inside the double gates of the fort was where the Indian trading took place. Just inside the fort on the west of the main gates was a large house, measuring fifty by twenty-one feet and divided neatly into two pieces. The westernmost side was a combination blacksmith, gunsmith and tinner’s shop. Between the blacksmith shop and the gate was the large “reception room” which was for visiting Indians. Since the double gates formed a vestibule after passing through the first set of gates, entry was possible into the “reception room” through this vestibule. This allowed Indians to enter for trade without having access to the main parade ground of the fort. The vestibule size was twelve by thirty-two feet and was closed from the rest of the fort with log pickets.

Just off the reception room, was the “Indian trade room”, and the actual exchange of goods took place through a small window in this Indian trade room. This room also was on the exterior of the fort, and had a small window type opening to the exterior of the fort where trading could take place, if the allowing the Indians into the reception area was too dangerous.

The Bourgeois House and Parade Ground

The head of the fort as called the “bourgeois” (superintendent), and the large house that was the center of the fort or post, was called the bourgeois house. Ft. Union’s bourgeois house was near the center of the north wall. The bourgeois house was built in the French-St. Louis poteaux-en-sole (post on sill) construction. It measured about 78 feet by 24 feet in plan, and was a two story weather-boarded structure. The rear wall of the house was about 12 feet from the back palisade of the fort. The house looked as if it had been brought in directly from St. Louis. Painted solid white, each window sported green wooden shutters, it’s steeply pitched shingled roof was painted red to preserve the wood. The French called this a pavilion roof. Four dormer windows on the roof allowed light into the attic, balconies were supported by turned wood posts. The entire interior was wall papered and decorated with paintings and prints.

Between the front of the bourgeois house and the fort’s front gates was the parade ground, and in the center of the parade ground was the fort’s main flag pole. This wasn’t just any flagpole either! The pole looked as though it had been stolen from a large sailing ship. It was 63 feet high, and had a crow’s nest, and rope trusses supporting the staff on all sides. Upon this large pole the fort flew a huge sixteen by twenty foot American flag, which had once belonged to the U.S. Navy. About the base of the flagpole was twelve foot diameter garden of vegetables, surrounded by an octagonal fence. Near the fence and base of the pole was a small iron four pounder cannon, which was the one fired on special occasions such as the arrival or departure of steamers.

Occupants of Fort Union

The total occupants of the fort most likely never exceeded more that about 100. The occupants had a strict social standing of two classes, the upper class which included the Bourgeois, the clerks, and their families, and the lower classes which generally were the engagés, or contract labor and their families. There was much family life in the fort, much inter-racial marriage, especially between Indian women and the “white men”. Of course the “white men” were Caucasoid; there was a large diversity of races represented at the fort, as attested in surviving documents. Hispanics, African-Americans, Canadians, Scotchmen, Germans, Swiss, Frenchmen, Italians, Creoles, Spaniards, Mulattoes and half-Indians are all documented to have lived there. Most of the engagés were male, and most were hired for one or two year contracts to perform various tasks.

The more experienced backwoodsmen, were usually French-Canadians, and called both voyageurs and coureur de bois (woods runner); as opposed to the common laborers hired in St. Louis who were called mangeurs de lard (pork eaters).

Ft. Union’s Food

Visiting dignitaries, such as German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, left vivid descriptions of the food served at Ft. Union as early as 1833. Crackers, white bread, fresh vegetables, preserved and fresh fruit, complimented a large selection of meats, including buffalo tongues, venison of elk, deer and antelope. Dairy products were fresh from the fort’s milk cows. Chickens, goats and domestic pigs were kept within the fort for food. The absence of coffee, was somewhat eased by availability of iced Madeira and port wines with supper, and pears and cherries were tasty desserts.

The Distillery at Ft. Union and the Whiskey Problem

From early times, there had been a problem with the Indians and liquor. Kenneth McKenzie, the bourgeois at Ft. Union in 1833, found a way to circumvent the federal government’s laws on bringing liquor up the Missouri River for the Indians. In the spring of 1833 the steamer Yellowstone made its way up the Missouri with distillery equipment for the trade at Ft. Union. By July of 1833 the still was in full operation, producing moonshine whiskey from Indian corn purchased from the Mandan tribe. Eventually, one of the UMO’s competitors “blew the whistle” on McKenzie, and he and Pierre Chouteau, Jr. were compelled to explain this breach of the intent of the anti liquor laws for the Indians. It is completely understandable why this happened, as HBC freely supplied liquor to the Indians with whom they traded, both to grease the wheels of commerce, and to tilt the balance in their favor. The Upper Missouri Outfit was just leveling the playing field. Other Missouri River traders also managed to get whiskey to the Indians, sometimes importing it from the New Mexico area. One famed whiskey man named Simeon Turley at Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico began to manufacture whiskey as early as 1832, and continued well past 1843. Even the famed Santa Fe, New Mexico firm of Bent, St. Vrain & Company (of Bent’s Fort, Colorado fame) placed an order with Pratte, Chouteau & Company for six large capacity copper stills. Where these six stills ended up is anyone’s guess, as there is no record of a still at Bent’s Fort.

The Greeting, William de la Montagne Cary
The Greeting, William de la Montagne Cary

Unpleasantness at Ft. Union

As with most frontier forts, there was a share of life that was unpleasant. Gonorrhea plagued many of the inhabitants, although rarely recorded in writing; it was a fact of life. Sanitation was a problem, although little written account survives that documents this, it is likely that chamber pots were used at night, and some small latrines were built within the palisade. Horses and livestock were held within the palisade to protect them from theft by the Indians. Plain old animal droppings and human excrement was a problem, and so was the mud and muck resulting from snow, rains combined with the aforementioned waste. This all created a stench within the walls of the fort, and resulted in a “boardwalk” affair criss-crossing the grounds during poor weather. The stench became bothersome during the summer months, when higher temperatures ripened the manure piles. Some of the refuse of the fort’s inhabitants was thrown over the walls. Archeologists uncovered one dump outside the north wall of the fort, and another within the walls near the southeast corner.

AntiqueBottleAmberThe strychnine used to kill wolves was sold in one-eighth ounce bottles, which was enough to kill five wolves. Durfee & Peck stated that they had sold as many as 1,200 bottles of strychnine to one trapper!

Fort Union and the surrounding Indian tribes were stricken with an epidemic of smallpox, in June of 1837. During the smallpox epidemic, Charles Larpenteur was the bourgeois and he attempted to inoculate the fort’s inhabitants, from reading about this in one of the fort library’s books, “Doctor Thomas’ Medical Book”. Unfortunately this did not work, as he used live smallpox matter, rather than the required preparation of cowpox, as less virulent strain.

The stench of the disease within the compound was so strong that the inhabitants took to carrying vials of camphor pressed to their noses. Within the locked down fort, 27 people became ill with smallpox, four or these died. Larpenteur’s own wife’s body was covered in maggots and smallpox pustules, for two days of misery before she died. The Indians outside the walls also were inadvertently exposed to smallpox, and it laid waste to their ranks. At least 800 Assiniboine died, 700 Blackfeet, and 800 Arikara Indians succumbed to the disease. The Mandan tribe was virtually wiped out, with only about 30 survivors, and three fourths of the Hidatsa tribes also died.

1864 – General Sully & Beginnings of Ft. Buford

Sioux depredations on steamship traffic had been so intense; the U.S. government sent General Alfred Sully on a campaign against the Sioux, over three summers, from 1863 through 1865. General Sully and his troops arrived at Ft. Union in June of 1864 to guard government supplies meant to build a post near the Yellowstone. Sully studied the decaying wooden fort, and decided that it should be replaced with a new larger government fort, at a site about two and a half miles away at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. This site was to be named Fort Buford.

The U.S. military kept a presence in the area and at Ft. Union for some years. Paroled Confederate prisoners were pressed into military service on the western frontier, and in Oct. of 1864, the 1st Regiment, United States Volunteers arrived at nearby Ft. Rice, with 23 year old Colonel Charles Dimon in command. After spending a miserable winter at Ft. Rice, the volunteers were distributed at other forts up and down the Missouri, including about 50 men of Company B which were billeted at Ft. Union. Colonel Dimon is of interest, because he was somewhat paranoid, and seemed to find apparent insurrection and insubordination everywhere. He even had one of his soldiers shot for a muttered remark. In February of 1865, Col. Dimon suspended the regularly licensed Indian trader’s privileges, and put the Indian trading in the hands of the post sutler at the fort. This shows the sometimes blurred line between post sutlers and Indian traders that did occur on occasion.

1866 – Ft. Union Sold to Northwest Fur Company

“American Fur Company” sold Fort Union to the “Northwest Fur Company” (not the “North West Company”) in 1866, and was in their hands for about one year.

Jerry Adams
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1 Comment

  1. any exact dates when Fort Browning on the Milk River started to be built.

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